England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development, Housing and planning

A garden town for the future – An interview with Cllr Jim Martin

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Cllr Jim Martin, is the leader of Folkestone & Hythe District Council, Kent. Jim describes himself as an accidental politician – having been leader of a local campaign group prior to running for elected office. He is also the portfolio holder for Otterpool Park, a ‘garden town’ in the Kent countryside currently under development. Otterpool Park will eventually feature some 8,500 homes, including 1,870 affordable houses, alongside seven primary schools, a town centre, shops and community centres, eventually outgrowing the nearby town of Hythe. A commitment to net zero, affordable and sustainable housing, and community connection both within the new town and with the existing local villages and towns runs throughout the development. In this interview, we spoke to Jim about how Otterpool Park was first envisioned, and how sustainability and housing affordability are central to the project.

Background:

Otterpool Park was created partly in response to the government’s call for new settlements, specifically their programme of garden villages and garden towns. One of the most appealing aspects of the development to new residents is its location. Situated near Ashford, Dover (and its connections to Europe), an hour from London, and surrounded by an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Otterpool Park is also adjacent to five villages. Jim said the whole idea of the project “is that we integrate, we supplement and we add to the lives” of these villages, stating that the council has worked “very, very closely” with village residents on the planning of the park.

Otterpool Park will also be situated next to the Westenhanger railway station and nearby motorway junction. This decision, according to Jim, will save the council “hundreds of millions of pounds in terms of infrastructure” while ensuring existing local transport infrastructure is supported and expanded. Jim emphasised the importance of getting the community on board. “In America, they use the term flip flop, and you can’t do that with a project like this. It’s really important that the community are supportive and understand the objectives and outcomes… that they buy into the aspiration”. In the early stages conceptualising the park, he found that local planners and neighbouring villages shared some converging objectives that the town could deliver, including new schools, health centres, improvements to the railway station, and better bus services.

Housing:

A key mission of the Otterpool Park project is ensuring a substantial proportion of new houses are affordable. Jim explained that while the policy compliance requires 22% affordable housing, on top of that the council is seeking to create a diverse range of tenures, ranging from build to rent properties to traditional council houses. The project is hoped to fulfill the district’s housebuilding requirements for the next decade. Jim believes that a diverse population is an important part of the park’s success – a home to families, people who work locally, people who work from home, retirees, among others. With a background in chartered surveying, Jim believes that mixed developments, mixed tenures and mixed communities usually work best and become the neighbourhoods that truly thrive.

Homes in Otterpool Park will be sold in phases to address absorption rates – how many homes you can sell into a market at a time. Different parts of the park will be opened up at different times, with phases running concurrently. This, Jim believes, will lead to different areas of the development eventually having more of their own identity with some areas more focused on family homes and others on flats and smaller dwellings. He also envisions different nearby villages influencing the personality of each neighbourhood across the site.

Sustainability:

Another pillar of the project is a commitment to the environment. Jim is the only Green council leader in Kent, and talks passionately of not only meeting the environmental targets set for the Otterpool Park Project, but exceeding them considerably. As a garden town situated in a historic natural area with several protected heritage features, a major target of the development is achieving a biodiversity net gain. Some of the steps towards achieving this include plans to plant more than a million trees and create new hedgerows and wetlands areas, including Otterpool Park’s new wastewater treatment plant, home to several large reed beds. Jim said these beds are expected to attract a huge amount of insects, followed by amphibians, birds and small mammals, to build a more diverse local ecosystem. While the development must comply with a 20% target for net biodiversity, Jim believes it will eventually reach 80%. Elsewhere, local solar is expected to meet a large part of the town’s energy needs, and Jim stressed the commitment to net zero isn’t just for energy use, but in the construction process, with a particular focus on reducing the embodied energy when building and reusing construction waste to create new roads. Jim said achieving net zero from the outset with this project was “the ultimate achievement for us” and that there “was no point in the 21st century building a 20th century development”.

Finally, the project’s design has a large emphasis on active travel and staying active, with networks of walking and cycling routes through the development and into the local area. Ride sharing principles, bike hire and other emerging transport technology has been factored into the Otterpool Park’s plans to ensure the Garden Town is fully connected and sustainable. The abundance of green areas, ranging from heritage walks to the Westenhanger Castle, sports fields, nature trails, and woodlands, is hoped to encourage residents to travel around locally “in person” rather than just by car.

Watch the full video interview now



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